Italy strikers start doing their job
Advancing to the quarterfinals isn't the only positive news for Italy. Now, the Azzurri strikers are also starting to score.
Both Antonio Cassano and substitute Mario Balotelli found the target on Monday in the 2-0 win over Ireland that booked Italy a spot in the last eight of the European Championship.
''That's a great sign, we needed them,'' Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said. ''While they had great previous matches, they hadn't scored. With their two goals everything was much more straightforward.''
Italy's forwards struggled in opening 1-1 draws with Spain and Croatia, and also didn't find the net in three pre-tournament friendlies - all losses.
''Now we start a new Euros - absolutely,'' Cassano said after the victory over Ireland.
Italy will meet the Group D winner Sunday in Kiev - with France, England and co-host Ukraine among the possible opponents.
''France is a squad to worry about. They play a very interesting 4-3-3 with three modern strikers that don't provide any reference points,'' Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said Tuesday. ''England is a squad that never gives up and that has now also discovered some interesting players. Whereas Ukraine plays with a lot of spirit and produces great counterattacks.
''I'm not creating any goals,'' Prandelli said earlier. ''My goal is simply a squad that knows how to play football, otherwise you don't go very far.''
Prandelli will have to ponder a change in defense, with Giorgio Chiellini ruled out for the quarterfinals with a left leg muscle injury. Chiellini exited the Ireland match early in the second half.
''We'll do everything we can to get him back quickly,'' team physician Enrico Castellacci said following an MRI. ''If we advance we'll try to get him back for the first available match.''
Italy used a three-man defense in its opening two games, then switched to a more traditional four-man backline against Ireland, which allowed Daniele De Rossi to return to his natural position in midfield.
When Chiellini came off, Leonardo Bonucci replaced him alongside Andrea Barzagli in central defense, and that could be the pairing for the quarterfinals.
''Let's wait to assess our fatigue and see who our opponent is, but the four-man backline satisfied me,'' Prandelli said. ''Maybe that's all we needed to find some confidence and balance. And this way our quality in midfield emerges, even when we're struggling. But whoever our opponent is, we've got to play with the same spirit.''
In attack, Prandelli needs to decide whether to put Balotelli back in the starting lineup. Balotelli appeared hesitant against Spain and Croatia and lost his starting spot to Antonio Di Natale against Ireland. Di Natale came off the bench and scored against Spain but produced little in the final group match.
''We haven't even savored this victory and we're already talking about the next game. I'm not thinking about that yet,'' Prandelli said. ''I'm just thinking about getting my players back fit and in training. The idea of having all these forwards ready to go could be a bonus for us.''
Balotelli's goal was a work of art, with the 21-year-old striker acrobatically wrapping his shot around defender John O'Shea in mid air as he met a corner kick from Alessandro Diamanti.
After the goal, Balotelli appeared to be letting out a scream when Bonucci came over and used one hand to cover Balotelli's mouth.
Was Balotelli releasing anger toward Prandelli?
''I don't think he has a problem with me, but honestly I don't know. I'll ask him,'' said Prandelli, who was later seen holding a one-to-one discussion with Balotelli during training. ''Once he starts accepting criticism and realizing that nobody wants to hurt him, that's when he'll have matured.''
Italy also reached the quarterfinals at Euro 2008, losing to Spain on penalties.
''The good and the bad thing about this squad is that we're able to play balanced matches with any squad, both the strongest ones and the ones that are weaker than us,'' Buffon said. ''That's why penalties are always a possibility.''